NEWPORT — Mayor Paul Monette began Monday’s City Council meeting with a story: He had recently gone camping in New Hampshire, seen scores of all-terrain vehicles, had polite exchanges with their operators and found nothing of concern.
For him, the excursion showed how well a proposal to open city roads to ATVs could work, especially when he talked to businesses patronized by riders.
But some in the audience — and on the City Council dais — were not persuaded.
“What am I going to hear and smell, and what kind of dust is going to come in?” asked Ruth Sproull, who lives on the proposed route. “Is that going to contribute to the tranquillity in my home?”
Close to 50 people gathered inside the council chambers, and even with an extra row of chairs brought in, some residents had to stand.
At the council’s Sept. 16 meeting, supporters introduced the proposal that would open to ATVs the stretch of Main Street most dense with businesses, along with residential routes.
They argued it would boost Newport’s economy by directing more traffic to downtown businesses.
“We would like to help bring a revitalization into the city, bring revenue back into the city,” Scott Jenness, president of the Orleans-based Borderline Ridge Riders ATV club, said at that meeting.
But Sproull and several others Monday worried about noise and safety. Council President Julie Raboin joined them.
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“I am not entirely opposed to the idea, but I am pretty concerned about safety and the disruption of being able to live peaceably on a city street, where it’s a dense residential neighborhood,” Raboin said.
Raboin said she would be more inclined to support the measure if it were retooled.
“Get away from residential, stick to lowly populated streets, lower the speed limit on Main Street, and I’m much more likely to vote ‘for’ — in favor,” she said.
Backers of the idea again brought up the benefits to business.
“We live in a tourist community, and we need to attract and keep tourist dollars in our area,” said Frank Richardi, owner of two restaurants on Main Street. “We also need to keep our residents here entertained.”
Richardi said the ATV proposal would keep money local and draw more customers to the city, allowing established businesses to succeed and future ones to grow.
“So we can all thrive and survive, so we’re not struggling, so we don’t save three months out of the year to last the other nine months out of the year,” he said.
He acknowledged that ATVs moving throughout downtown might inconvenience people.
“But everybody has to open their eyes and welcome a little bit of change for the greater good of everything,” he said.
ATV riders rebutted some arguments made about noise levels or recklessness — and backed the claims that the proposal would help the economy.
Resident Christine Russell said she and her family take ATVs to New Hampshire, where ATV travel on roads is more broadly accepted, because it’s easier to access trails.
“This a really huge opportunity for us to keep our money here in our city,” Russell said.
She said that she often takes her children on her ATV. She’s more cautious operating one of the vehicles than when driving a car, she said, because she’s more vulnerable and exposed on an ATV.
“Once you get used to seeing the ATVs on the road, I don’t think you’re going to feel that noise level or feel uncomfortable having us move in and out of traffic,” she said.
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She joked: “Once everybody gets used to it, you might want to go for a ride, too.”
Newport is the largest community of several in the Northeast Kingdom this year to examine the issue of allowing ATVs on municipal roads.
Monette said council members will vote on the proposed ordinance at their Oct. 21 meeting. Raboin, though, would prefer citizens make the decision through a public vote.
“Because we’re not hearing from everybody,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard from that are saying, ‘Please, don’t do this.’”
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